Politics & Government

Judge orders release of pipeline records

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission must immediately release oil and natural gas pipeline mapping information to several of the state's newspapers, a judge ruled Friday, saying the information was not exempt from the state's public disclosure law.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks issued the 20-page written ruling shortly after a one-hour hearing.

Shelley Hall, the lawyer for the newspapers, applauded the decision.

"There is no exemption," she said. "The documents can and should be public."

The ruling comes toward the end of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to draw attention to open government and the public's right to know.

Commission spokesman Tim Sweeney said the agency would abide by the court's decision, and could release the documents Monday barring other court action.

"We welcome the court's role in this, in balancing the interest of the various parties," he said.

Last month, The Bellingham Herald and a private citizen requested the detailed information the commission has collected about pipelines as a result of a pipeline accident in Bellingham that killed three youths in 1999.

The data includes details about the pipes, including where specific valves, compression stations and other parts are located.

The request came after a bill that would have exempted the information from open records laws passed out of a state House committee. That bill has since died since it was not brought up for a vote before a key legislative deadline this week.

The state Public Disclosure Act, passed by citizen initiative in 1972, requires agencies to comply with public records requests except in cases of specific exemptions under the law. After receiving the request, commission officials notified the oil companies that the information was about to be released. The companies then asked the courts to intervene.

Several companies got a temporary restraining order to prevent the release of the information. When several other newspapers in the state asked for the same information, the restraining order carried over to them.

The companies argued that while the information can be shared with local governments and emergency officials, it should not be available to anyone who wants it.

But the newspapers argued that the only reason the information was gathered was to increase public safety following the 1999 accident, when an Olympic pipeline segment ruptured in Bellingham, spilling 229,000 gallons of gasoline into two creeks.